The fancy term is “homogeneous alloy,” but we’re primarily talking about all-copper or copper-alloy rifle bullets, absent any trace of lead. There are two primary reasons to hunt with this type of bullet: Because you have to; or because you want to.
Without question, lead is a toxic metal, and lead poisoning is a serious and potentially fatal health hazard. Waterfowlers have been required to use non-toxic shot nationwide since 1991, now with multiple alternatives including alloys of bismuth, iron, tungsten, and zinc. A legal requirement to use non-lead bullets is newer and still uncommon…but that depends on where you live. Since 2007 California has banned hunting with lead bullets throughout the range of the endangered California condor. The condor, really the world’s largest vulture, is primarily a scavenger. Hard evidence is sketchy, but there is a chance a condor could ingest lead fragments or particles by eating carcasses of animals taken with lead bullets. California’s Central Coast, where I’ve lived for 25 years, is part of the so-called “condor zone.”
The region also has California’s densest feral hog population, reasonable deer hunting, and a growing herd of tule elk. For a dozen years hunters here have been among those who must use non-lead bullets. Now we’ve got a lot of company, because as of July 1, 2019, use of lead bullets for hunting has been banned statewide! So, everyone who hunts in California is now in the group who have to use unleaded projectiles. Scattered throughout the country there are other lead-free zones, undoubtedly for various reasons.
There are many hunters who use copper (copper-alloy) bullets because they want to: They like them, believe in them… and they work! The famous “X-Bullet” from Barnes was the first successful expanding copper bullet, improved into the TSX (Triple Shock X). More recently, Barnes added a polymer-tipped version (TTSX) and a long-range version (LRX) with improved aerodynamics. Today there are other choices, including Hornady’s GMX (Gilding Metal eXpanding) and MonoFlex; Nosler’s E-Tip; Federal’s Trophy Copper; Norma’s Eco-Strike; Winchester’s Copper Impact…and more. All perform essentially the same way: A hollow nose cavity with a skived tip so that, upon impact, the nose peels back in petals.
Expansion is controlled or limited by the depth and diameter of the nose cavity. In the case of the polymer-tipped copper bullets, upon impact the tip is driven down into the nose cavity, initiating expansion—which is exactly what the tip does in conventional lead-core bullets that are tipped. The advantage to the homogeneous alloy bullet is just that: It is one piece of solid metal, so it can’t come apart or separate. It is possible for petals to break off, but even when this happens weight retention is extremely high. If the petals remain intact (they often do!), then weight retention approaches 100 percent. Typically, expansion is not as great as with lead-core bullets. Therefore, I think of homogeneous-alloy bullets as “penetrating bullets” that usually exit with broadside shots.
Copper fouling can be an issue, especially with rough bores. The driving bands that came in with the TSX bullet and are found on most copper bullets today mitigate this, and in any case it’s not a problem to scrub it out with a copper solvent containing ammonia. Copper is lighter than lead, so a copper bullet will be longer than a lead-core bullet of the same weight. Against this, the copper bullets work so well and lose so little weight during expansion and penetration that many hunters who use them believe lighter bullets can be used with the same effect, thus increasing velocity and reducing recoil.
As for accuracy, it depends on the rifle! Adequate hunting accuracy is rarely a problem, but my experience has been that some rifles shoot homogenous alloy bullets extremely well…and some do not. This is pretty much the same with any rifle or any other bullet or type of bullet: You never know what’s going to work best in a given rifle until you experiment with a variety of loads.
Although there are many good choices, it’s important to have confidence in your rifle and cartridge. It’s also good to have confidence in your bullet. Many hunters place tremendous faith in copper bullets and use them in various calibers for everything. They are among the group that use these bullets because they want to, not because they have to!
Let’s get back to the “have to” group, which now includes all California hunters! Nobody likes to be told what products they must use, and hunters and shooters are probably an especially prickly group. For years, the lead-bullet ban in the condor zone was a major item for discussion at area ranges and local gun shops. Some hunters made it sound like they were being forced to shoot blanks!
There are two traditional schools of thought regarding bullet performance. Some demand exit wounds, through and through penetration. One rationale is that exit wounds leave a better blood trail to follow. Another: If a bullet consistently exits on broadside shots, then there’s probably enough penetration for quartering-away shots. The opposite school wants the bullet to expand, penetrate to the vitals, and expend all its energy, believing that energy spent in dirt, rocks, and trees on the far side on the far side of the animal is wasted.
Although these concepts are conflicted, there is truth in all of them. Ideal bullet performance is some mysterious mixture of expansion and penetration. It depends on what you want…and it also depends on the size of the animal relative to the caliber and weight of the bullet. So, do I use homogenous-alloy bullets? In California you bet I do…because I have to!
Elsewhere, I don’t have to use them, so I have lots of choices. I use them when I want to…sometimes because a TSX or GMX happens to group extremely well in that rifle…and sometimes because expansion/penetration qualities of the copper bullets seem to match the job at hand. Not everyone agrees, but because, typically, these bullets penetrate more than they expand, my opinion is: The bigger and tougher the game, the better they work! I like them for elk and bear. African professional hunters tend to agree that they’re awesome for buffalo. In fact, they’re so awesome that we don’t use them for Mozambique’s swamp buffalo hunting! In that area we’re usually working big herds; the homogeneous-alloy bullets often pass straight through, even on buffalo. There, we avoid them because, in herds, it’s difficult to get a clear shot, so we prefer lead-core expanding bullets that are less likely to pass through and endanger unseen animals on the far side.
Here in California they work great on feral hogs, which are tough and can be large. Our black-tail deer aren’t large. I tend to agree with the nay-sayers: The homogeneous-alloy bullets the law requires us to use are often unimpressive on our small-bodied deer. In part this is a matter of how we employ them. Traditionally, American hunters prefer behind-the-shoulder lung shots: The target is the largest, and meat damage the least. Especially with the lighter calibers we use on our small-bodied deer (6mms and .25s are traditional favorites), on behind-the-shoulder lung shots the homogeneous-alloy bullets often pass straight through without doing a lot of damage. A through-and-through central lung shot is surely fatal, but with caliber-sized entrance and (at best) twice-caliber exit some tracking is likely.
It is not necessary to shift to larger calibers. Instead, borrow a page from the African PHs, who consistently exhort their clients to concentrate shot placement on the shoulder. Instead of shooting behind the shoulder, on a broadside shot come straight up the middle of the on-foreleg, one-third to no more than half-way up into the body. The homogeneous-alloy bullet will pierce (and usually break) the on-shoulder, penetrate across the top of the heart, and, on deer-sized game, usually break the opposite shoulder and exit. This is the shot I’ve long preferred on all game bigger and tougher than deer. There is a bit more meat damage than with the behind-the-shoulder lung shot, but usually not extreme with the tough homogeneous-alloy bullets. Try it, and over time I think you’ll do a lot less tracking!